Welsh take first leg lead
London Welsh will take a 16-point lead into the second leg of their Championship final with Cornish Pirates after a stunning display at Mennaye Field gave them a 31-21 win last night.
On the ground where Bristol’s promotion hopes were dashed just a few short weeks ago, and the Exiles hadn’t won in their previous three visits, Lyn Jones’ side grasped the initiative ahead of next Wednesday’s (May 30) return game at the Kassam Stadium, Oxford.
Rather then being deflated by the RFU’s announcement regarding the club’s promotion bid, the Exiles seemed more determined and galvanised than ever behind their quest to lift the Championship title for the first time.
Roared on by a passionate home following, Grant Pointer’s try gave the home side the perfect start, only for Welsh to respond with 23 unanswered points. Wingers Joe Ajuwa and Nick Scott crossing.
A penalty try awarded to the Pirates two minutes before half-time closed the gap to 23-14 at the break, but, having weathered a third quarter onslaught from the home side, the Exiles struck twice in the space of a minute through Hudson Tonga’uiha and James Lewis.
Suddenly the margin stood at 23 points, but the sinbinning of Welsh centre Tonga’uiha gave the home side a way back in and Phil Burgess made sure the Pirates took advantage to cross for a try that keeps the destination of the Championship title in the balance.
The Pirates made just the start they wanted when a knock on from the kick off gave them good field position, and the Welsh defence was eventually breached when Pointer burst through to score under the posts. Rob Cook added the simple conversion.
But the Welsh response was quick with Alex Davies stroking over the first of his six successful kicks at goal.
It was the full back’s kick to touch that ultimately led to Welsh first try. Mike Denbee was the beneficiary as the Pirates’ lineout malfunctioned, as it would repeatedly in the first half, but the Welsh flanker’s offload was deemed to have been deliberately knocked down by Thomas and the fly half was despatched to the bin.
Davies took the three points on offer before Welsh went about trying to take further advantage of their numerical superiority.
Welsh looked in when Denbee again snaffled Pirates lineout ball and Davies stabbed the ball forward for Ajuwa to chase, but the home side’s scramble defence was good and they managed to turn the ball over and clear.
It would prove only a temporary reprieve, however, as Welsh spread the play wide across the Pirates’ 22, creating an overlap through Davies and Beach, and Ajuwa finished it off. Davies converted.
Thomas returned to the fray but it was the visitors that struck next, as they once again capitalised on the Pirates lineout. Denbee collected at the tail and burst forward before releasing Rob Lewis, who bided his time before picking out Scott to race clear down the right hand touchline to score.
In control, the Welsh pack took over, edging into the home side’s 22 before the ball was fired back to Ross and he landed a drop goal to extend the Welsh lead to 16 points.
It would have been an almost perfect half had Welsh managed to go in that way, but the Pirates hit back with a penalty try two minutes before the break.
When the Welsh scrum went backwards for the second time, just five metres from their own line, referee Greg Garner had no hesitation is making a bee-line for the posts. Cook added the extras to leave Welsh leading 23-14 at the break.
The home side would take the game to Welsh in the third quarter, peppering the corners, but the Exiles’ defence held firm. Cook had a sight of the posts, only for his penalty to attempt to drop short and wide.
It was now end-to-end action. Rob Lewis had to go back with Burgess in pursuit, while Ajuwa produced once excellent carry Welsh continuing to try and play rugby from deep rather than just putting boot to ball.
Burgess then burst clean through, but Tonga’uiha got back with a desperate last-ditch tackle. When Welsh then hacked on, Sam Hill did well to salvage the situation, buying time before the safe haven of touch could be found.
But the stalemate could not continue indefinitely and when some aggressive defence won a penalty, Ross found touch and Tonga’uiha split the defence to score. Davies converted.
There was better to come. From the restart Jackson ran it back before finding Beach, and with the Pirates defence in disarray James Lewis had the angle to race away to score in the corner. Welsh were in dreamland and Davies added a superb conversion.
The home side were given a lifeline when Tonga’uiha was adjudged to have taken the man out in the air, and the Pirates took full advantage of the opportunity when Burgess went over. Cook converted to close the gap to 16 points, and that’s how it will stand when the two sides take to the field at the Kassam Stadium next Wednesday.
Cornish Pirates: Tries: Pointer, Penalty, Burgess; Cons: Cook (3).
London Welsh: Tries: Ajuwa, Scott, Tonga’uiha, James Lewis; Cons: Davies (4); Pens: Davies (2). Drop Goals: Ross.
Cornish Pirates: Rob Cook, Grant Pointer, Andrew Suniula, Sam Hill, David Doherty, Ceiron Thomas, Gavin Cattle ©, Carl Rimmer, Dave Ward, Alan Paver, Laurie McGlone, Ian Nimmo, Dave Ewers, Phil Burgess, Kyle Marriott.
Replacements: Ryan Storer for Rimmer (60mins), Matt Evans for Thomas (65mins), Tom Kessell for Suniula (65mins), Rudi Brits for Paver (66mins), Michael Myerscough for Nimmo (68mins), Rob Elloway for Ewers (69mins), Matt Smith for McGlone (74mins).
Yellow cards: Thomas (13mins).
London Welsh: Alex Davies, Nick Scott, James Lewis, Hudson Tonga’uiha, Joe Ajuwa, Gordon Ross, Rob Lewis, Max Lahiff, Dan George, James Tideswell, Jon Mills ©, Matt Corker, Lee Beach, Mike Denbee, Ed Jackson.
Replacements: Vili Ma’asi for George (60mins), Seb Jewell for Beach (72mins), Greg Bateman for Tideswell (75mins), Martin Purdy for Corker (75mins), Ben Russell for James Lewis (77mins), Billy Moss for Lahiff (79mins).
Replacements not used: Moates.
Yellow cards: Tonga’uiha (67mins).
Referee: Sean Greg Garner; Assistant referees: Luke Pearce and Chris Sharp.